Photo: AAP Image/Mick Tsikas
Well good morning and happy Australia Day.
Today of all days I want to begin by acknowledging the traditional owners of the land on which we meet today, the Ngunnawal people. To elders past and present, I say thank you for the wonderful inheritance you have given to us today, and to the elders of the future, I say thank you as well.
To Your Excellency the Governor-General and Lady Cosgrove, to all our honoured guests here today, colleagues, those who are serving all around the country today and right around the world.
To our new citizens, Australians all.
It was more than a century ago Sir Henry Parkes, the father of our federation, put forward a vision of a united and diverse Australia, intergenerationally bound together by a liberty that transcended race, ethnicity, history and even religion.
“What we are doing by this great Federal movement is not for us, but for them, for the untold millions that will follow us; until this land of Australia shall gather within its bosom all the fruits of the culture of the world; and until the flag of freedom shall be planted here so firmly and guarded with such a fervent patriotism, that all the powers on earth shall never assault it.”
Today, on Australia Day, we celebrate Parkes’ vision for our nation. A nation that indeed has gathered the cultures and peoples of the world, the most successful multicultural nation on earth, that began with our first peoples.
Yesterday, Jenny and I took our girls to join with the Ngunnawal people here in Canberra, not far from here, to acknowledge and pay tribute to our first Australians and 60,000 years of Indigenous culture and history.
We honoured their resilience, their wisdom, their custodianship and stewardship. The world’s oldest living culture.
A stewardship of sea, mountains, rainforest, deserts, river and rock.
We sat together, Australians all, paying our respects – to those with us now, those who come before and for the future we share together. Acknowledging the first peoples who began our great Australian story.
The next great chapter in that story began 231 years ago today.
It was not a good day for my fifth great grandfather, William Roberts.
Bunkered down in the light starved bowels of the Scarborough with 207 other convicts, he had arrived in Port Jackson after a long and treacherous voyage from Portsmouth.
He was transported for stealing 5 and a half-pound of yarn valued at 9 shillings. It was January 26, 1788. It was a new beginning for him, but it would have seemed a particularly grim one at the time and life was indeed about to get a lot tougher.
Sick, poor, destitute, thrust into an unknown place and an uncertain future.
When the Scarborough returned to New South Wales with the notorious Second Fleet, below deck on the Neptune was Kezia Brown. She was a gardeners’ labourer who’d been transported for stealing clothing. She was my fifth great grandmother.
Seventy-eight female convicts, some with children and infants, were all accommodated on the Neptune, as were some 420 convict men.
The contractors were paid a bit over £17 for each convict embarked. There was no financial incentive to ensure those convicts arrived safe and healthy in New South Wales.
During her voyage, more than a quarter of the convicts died and over a third were hopelessly sick when they landed, with 124 to die soon after arriving.
The Rev Richard Johnson reported the misery of the scene of their arrival as “indescribable ... their heads, bodies, clothes, blankets, were all full of lice. They were wretched, naked, filthy, dirty, lousy, and many of them utterly unable to stand, or even to stir hand or foot”.
These were very humble and the worst of beginnings.
William and Kezia were married at St Phillips in Sydney a few years later. They then carved out a future for them and their family in a harsh colonial environment we now know as western Sydney. They are buried at St Matthews in Windsor together.
The wonder of our country is that out of such hardship and cruelties would emerge a nation as decent, so fair and so prosperous as ours today.
That is what we celebrate.
While our beginnings were marked with the cruelties and dispossession of empire, they were also accompanied by the idealism of the enlightenment age. Australia was to be a great project.
As Doctor Kemp has written this new settlement was “the ideal place to experiment with such radical ideas as broad individual liberty and equality, universal education, freedom of the press, freedom of religion, a new land without slavery, the rule of law, the classless society, private enterprise and later, the political and social equality of men and women”.
It was these ideas, not the cruelty and the dispossession, that prevailed to make Australia great.
These great ideas are the foundation of our modern Australia and that have transformed us into this most recent chapter of our great story – the one we write together today in the spirit of Parkes great vision.
It’s the one that the men, women and children who will join our company today as citizens will now have a hand in writing.
Across our land today 16,212 men, women and children will become citizens today in 365 ceremonies.
They – you – will be endowed with the same rights, the same opportunities, the same privileges and the same responsibilities as each and every other Australian.
You will be passed the inheritance of our history of over 60,000 years in all its chapters and those freedoms.
Recently I received a letter which to me captured what this day and this ceremony are all about.
It was a letter from a man named Vernon, who realised it had been 25 years since he had escaped war and he simply wanted to say thank you.
He wrote of his family’s Australian journey.
“We have not looked back since then, keeping our promise to Australia and its people.
“My wife is a nurse, my older son a teacher. I engage in my passion, art, and my family duties while also helping youngsters in cricket. Like the majority of migrants we pay our taxes without grudge, obey the law, and are grateful for the opportunities offered by this country to live as free and independent citizens.”
Vernon and his family, and the families and individuals here today are all making Australia a better place.
We can be so proud of our national story. Sure it is not perfect, but no country is.
The story of Australia is not the story of a land mass. It is the story of a living, breathing, good-hearted people making the best choices we can, but always striving to be even better.
And now as we begin this citizenship ceremony, you too get to become part of this great story of Australia.
I am glad William and Kezia made the journey, and I’m glad you have too.
Happy Australia Day.